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Ettore Sottsass: The Man from Memphis

Philippe Thomé’s exhaustive folio of one of the 20th century’s most important designers

The thing to remember about Ettore Sottsass is that he was a polymath and a Renaissance man − a jack-of-all-trades and master of all. An accomplished sculptor, artist, architect and designer, fully engaged and energetic, but also somewhat removed and unmoved by ‘the mundanity of bourgeois conformism’. Simultaneously at the centre of the debate and aloof with a ‘cosmic detachment’, his work expresses the concerns, urgency, hopes and dreams of his generation, while never allowing himself to get too divorced from cold reality.

Sottsass achieved a distinctive personal style in every creative field to which he turned his hand. Indeed, he achieved multiple styles not only over time but simultaneously, as with photography. Even just his work cataloguing vernacular building elements (literally thousands of walls, doors, staircases, roofs, windows) would constitute a complete career no less spectacular than the Bechers. But then, in parallel, we find a vast repository of striking portraits, as well framed and timed as any work by Robert Capa or Henri Cartier-Bresson. Sottsass’s photography from the 1940s captures intimate fragments of life at war, both soldiers and citizens: a field officer smiling, shaving in the sun on his return from the front lines; an exhausted factory woman smoking, her glazed expression fixed on the middle distance. His drive to capture the ‘poverty and nobility’ of humanity is evident.

In the 1960s, whether in ‘swinging London’ or San Francisco (when visiting Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan), the subject of his photos became almost exclusively beautiful women. By way of explanation, halfway through a text on the uncertainty of life and its relation to his work (‘I’ve always drawn at night, when the body and soul are more vulnerable’) he suddenly breaks off with a handwritten scribble in the margins: ‘I like girls and ladies very much. Once, on a very beautiful June day in Tuscany I was lying on the grass under an immense tree. There was a young girl with me in a yellow dress and I tried to kiss her, but there was a hole in the ground and I fell into the hole, it was a ridiculous event. She smiled very gently.’

Sottsass served much of the war a prisoner, and on his release he shared the illusion (common in his generation) that industrialisation would deliver postwar society from hard labour to a life of creativity and freedom. He abhorred conformism and ‘the arid humourless Puritanism’ at the core of much Modernism, and he was unusually conscious of consumerism’s role in alienation. This sense of critical engagement with production led to the turning point in his career in 1959, a collaboration with Olivetti that would last decades. The ‘pact’ he struck with the corporation, in which intellectual and manual labour were subdivided in order to preserve as much of his autonomy as possible, effectively invented the model of industrial designer we recognise today. Although principally concerned with advertising, graphic design and typewriters (like the portable red plastic Valentine), Sottsass was also responsible for designing the world’s first fully transistorised computer in 1959. Far from a metal box in a room, the Elea 9003 was based on human dimensions and made computing power comprehensible in a way so totally innovative there was no precedent. Abandoning existing aesthetics completely, Sottsass was the first to translate Modernist functionalism and ergonomics into the electronic era, styling each element in a different colour: red for power, green for memory tapes, grey plastic for logic units, and orange for data output.

These are examples of some of his lesser-known contributions; although there are so many in what was an uninterrupted flow of projects for almost a century. While there were periods when one medium or another would take precedence (first photography, then industrial design, then furniture, then architecture) under it all was Sottsass’s devotion to ceramics. Vases especially were his artistic laboratory: objects at the boundary of function where he could experiment and make mistakes on a (literally) small scale. ‘Terracotta is a very poor material (made of earth and fire), perhaps the oldest “man-made” material there is … clay is good for making things that indicate destiny’s misery and fragility rather than its strength and victory.’ So his sculpture becomes architecture; his architecture, furniture; and so on…

With his monolithic pre-Memphis furniture (allegedly inspired by beatnik homes in California), Sottsass strove to empty rooms of objects, to create an unencumbered domesticity devoid of status symbols, formally ascetic while remaining playful. Yet by the time Lyotard was hazily exploring ‘postmodernism’, Memphis had already made this philosophy concrete with an unprecedented clarity and strong communicative dimension. It would not be unfair to say that Sottsass and Memphis invented the postmodernist aesthetic (which remains what he is best known for).

In this volume, editor Philippe Thomé has put together an exhaustive folio of one of the 20th-century’s most important designers − relentless, colourful and seductive. Bookended with essays by experts and peers (such as Aldo Rossi and Andrea Branzi), this is not only a comprehensive record of the designer’s lifework, but also a touching portrait of a great man.

Ettore Sottsass

Editor: Philippe Thomé
Publisher: Phaidon
Price: £100

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